Politicians shouldn’t tell us what to teachPosted: February 15, 2013
Quite a debate is currently raging over whether Michael Gove’s announcements on exams and accountability measures represent a humiliating climb down or a cunning ploy to get 90% of what he wanted while seeming to give ground.
Against this background, the new National Curriculum proposals have perhaps received less attention than they otherwise might. It is of course true that many schools are not required to pay any attention to what the National Curriculum says. However, we should not under-estimate how much Gove is committed to his curriculum. He will assuredly use all the levers provided by testing and inspection to make sure that all schools do indeed follow it.
This curriculum represents the most blatant attempt yet by a politician to impose a particular ideology on children in defiance of the vast bulk of professional opinion. Moreover that ideology is profoundly reactionary and shows almost no understanding of the world that our children will be living in.
The curriculum is dominated throughout by traditional knowledge and traditional ways of accessing and transmitting that knowledge. So, two new aims are identified for the curriculum, in addition to those set out in 1988. They are to:
- provide pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens.
- introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and help engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.
The latter is virtually a quote from Mathew Arnold in 1869. However Arnold went on to say that students should:
“through this knowledge, turn a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically”
“Fresh and free thinking” are not to be encouraged in Mr Gove’s world! Heaven forbid that our “stock notions and habits” should be challenged.
The professional criticism of this new curriculum has been savage:
“At primary level this looks like leading to an unhelpful, exclusive overemphasis on systematic synthetic phonics in the teaching of early reading and an obsession with grammatical forms and terminology in the teaching of writing. At secondary level it suggests a narrow curriculum with a heavy emphasis on literature from the canon. Most important is the woeful undervaluing of oracy in the curriculum – good speaking and listening work should be at the heart of English given the links between language development and the development of thought and all forms of literacy. It seems the English curriculum will essentially be devoid of important areas like drama, media, multimodal texts and creativity.” (NATE)
“We do not support a ‘curriculum of compliance’. A curriculum that narrowly focuses on a set of given facts and expects children to passively absorb them is not what we want.“ (Geographical Association).
The content is heavily prescriptive and shows little evidence that any meaningful thought has gone into selection; indeed some decisions seem quite arbitrary and even bizarre. Attempting to teach such a content heavy curriculum will lead to little more than a superficial recollection of names and dates. The content of the draft Programmes of Study are far too narrow in their focus on British political history. References to women and diverse ethnic groups are clearly tokenistic. Nods to social, economic and cultural history are rare. The authors of this curriculum have completely failed to understand what progression in history might mean or how a good grasp of chronology can be developed. More than twenty years of thoughtful and sophisticated approaches to curriculum development have been thrown away in this document. (Historical Association).
This curriculum will do nothing to develop in pupils the kinds of skills and qualities that even organisations like the CBI are crying out for. Gove has accused his critics of a “Downton Abbey” approach – deliberately denying to young people the knowledge that they need.
The reality is that his concept of knowledge is stuck firmly in the past. A curriculum that thinks British history is all we need to know, that recognises no communications media except the printed word and that can reduce oracy to formal speeches and debates is profoundly unfit for purpose. He, surely, is the one who is denying to young people an education fit for their future.
The case is now surely made for removing from politicians the power to determine the school curriculum. But we also need to understand that what we are now seeing is something of a different order to what has gone before. Previous curricula have been based on wide consultation and have sought to develop a professional consensus. This one flies quite deliberately in the face of professional opinion and seeks to impose the half-baked ideas of passing politicians on all our children. They should not have the power to do that.